Lawmakers: Fear Silicon Valley and data brokers, not NSA

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Voters should be much more concerned about what private companies are collecting on them than about the National Security Agency, say several congressional defenders of the agency’s surveillance programs.

Silicon Valley firms, retailers, and behind-the-scenes “data brokers” all collect information on individual Americans in ways that could raise privacy concerns, yet these groups have largely escaped the raging debate focused on what the government collects.

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“It’s just the irony of this whole debate,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a prominent defender of the NSA.

“I mean it’s unbelievable what private companies collect from individuals and how they track them and track what their shopping habits are and where they may or may not be and how they shop,” he said. “All of that is collected. The NSA doesn’t do anything like that at all.”

Rogers’s counterpart in the Senate made the same point.

Asked if the debate has been too concerned with the NSA given what private companies collect, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, “there’s no question about it.”

The uproar over the NSA’s surveillance programs led President Obama to announce a series of reforms on Friday, some of which former NSA Director Michael Hayden warned could be damaging to security.

Rogers, Feinstein and other NSA defenders say the agency has been careful to not overstep civil liberties concerns, and that the larger picture points to private companies being a much greater danger.

“Databases are enormous and they’re connected,” Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence panel, said of private company data bases. “And there are all sorts of new techniques to bring about more, like facial recognition. You're shopping in the hardware department and somebody takes a picture and you're identified and they can use it for promotions of hardware products." 

The use of facial recognition in stores is still in the early stages, but a British supermarket has already ignited controversy for installing face scanners and the U.S. Department of Commerce is beginning to develop guidelines.

Much of the current collection of data is by brokers who collect information on individual consumers and then sell it to marketers. The companies gather data from public records, agreements with other companies, consumer surveys, and social media that add up to portrayals of intimate details of people’s lives.

Use of extremely detailed data extends to retailers as well. The New York Times reported in 2012 that Target had developed its algorithm to predict when customers are pregnant to the point where a Minnesota man discovered his daughter was pregnant when his house received Target coupons for baby clothes and cribs in the mail.

Technology companies have been pushing back against what they say are infringements by the NSA. Yet they have encountered accusations against themselves as well. Google, for example, is being sued over its practice of using the content of Gmail messages to help tailor advertisements.

But Google argues those who try to draw a parallel with the NSA are missing a key point.

“There is a crucial difference between commercial entities seeking to make some dimes off a user via potentially creepy ads and governments with an all-seeing spy system that could empower it to jail, suppress, blacklist and kill citizens,” wrote Marvin Ammori, a lawyer who advises Google, in a November op-ed in USA Today.

But Joseph Turrow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a book on online marketing, said companies’ collection “may in some ways be more personal than the types of material the NSA collects.”

He noted that, for example, Amazon goes further than the controversial NSA metadata collection program.

“They collect what books you look at,” he said. “They collect the kind of things you buy.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has introduced the Do-Not-Track Online Act, which would require the development of a binding mechanism through which people could indicate they do not want information collected about themselves online.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in November found 66 percent said they were concerned about NSA collection, just a three-percentage-point difference from the 69 percent who said they were concerned about collection from social media sites and online retailers.

Obama suggested that the role of private companies might begin to play a larger part in the discussion when he announced in his speech on Friday a White House review of “big data and privacy” in government and in the private sector.

“The challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone,” Obama said. “Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data and use it for commercial purposes.”

But he added that “all of us understand that the standards for government surveillance must be higher.”

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), an outspoken defender of the NSA, said though that the attention of privacy advocates should be on the private sector.

"People are so concerned about the NSA,” he said. “They should be concerned about private companies."

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